Aaron Long: “Obviously, there’s a lot of sadness in those moments. You just got to snap out of that and after that it was smooth sailing.” (USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

Suffering a ruptured Achilles is horrible enough.

A week after incurring his season-ending injury last May, Aaron Long admitted that was his most difficult time in his comeback, “just kind of wrapping my head around it.”

After all, it was an eight-month journey for he Red Bulls and U.S. men’s national team center back to return to form after injuring his right Achilles tendon.

“Not really being injured before in that manner and there’s a lot of what ifs and uncertainty of what’s to come and people are telling you timelines,” Long said during a Zoom call with the media on Thursday afternoon. “It’s going to feel like this and it’s going to look like this, and this is what your next couple months are going to look like.”

Long added that it was weird to try to plan something that he wasn’t familiar with.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of sadness in those moments,” he said. “You just got to snap out of that and after that it was smooth sailing.”

The 29-year-old defender’s recover has been right on time as he has attended the last three USMNT training camps. On Tuesday, he participated in a 11 v 11 scrimmage against Phoenix Rising, a USL Championship team.

“I feel great,” he said. “I’m not even eight months out yet but I feel really good. I’m training full. Just got to keep getting fit and hopefully be I mean, I got three more weeks until the qualifier. So I think I should be good to go.”

Well, head coach Gregg Berhalter will have the final say about who will make the roster for the three World Cup qualifiers later this month and Feb. 2. Berhalter has said he wants all his players physically fit and to have some matches under their belt. Long is unlikely to play until the Red Bulls start their preseason games.

While he will have no say in the matter, U.S. midfielder Sebastian Lletget has liked what he has seen.

“I’m super happy for him,” he said during another Zoom call. “He’s doing really well. They’re taking care of his minutes and tracking his progression, He’s obviously a big part of this group on and off the field. And I hope that it continues like that.”

Of course, so does Long, a cornerstone of the Red Bulls backline and the 2018 MLS defender of the year.

He started his rehab at the HSS Hospital in Manhattan. As he got a little bit farther along, the MLS club sent him to Salzburg, Austria to the organization’s rehab center for about three weeks. After some time in New York, Long returned to Austria for some more work.

Berhalter was one of the first people Long talked to after suffering the injury.

“He’s like, ‘Listen, we’re with you, man. We’ll support you in any way we can. We’ll stay in touch,’ ” Long said. “He kept true to that promise. And so did all the guys here from the medical staff and the training staff. Everyone checked in on me and I’ve been in in the last two camps when I wasn’t fully fit just for them to get their eyes on me and help me with the rehab and progress me in ways that maybe that we weren’t doing. I feel like I’m here today in such good shape and not even eight months out because of them. I can kind of take my hat to them and say thank you for that.”

While he couldn’t play and didn’t attend USMNT matches, Long still enjoyed the highs and endured the lows many miles away.

“There’s happy moments when the team is winning and you’re also sad that you’re not there and a part of it,” he said. “Watching the team win those trophies was a huge kind of relief for me as well.”

Such as winning the Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup.

“That’s something that we’ve been working for and we set our sights on so to have the team win that,” Long said. “To win both back-to-back like that, it was amazing to watch. I just wish I could be there with them and those moments. It’s amazing when the team wins. It’s tough when they lose.”

Thanks to those tournament wins and World Cup qualifying victories, the team has grown more confident.

“After wins in Gold Cup and wins in Nations League, there’s a different confidence about the group,” Long said. “It’s not like this is how we want to play. This is how we’re going to play. Those moments and those tournaments and that success always breeds a different confidence within the group. I can feel it and I can see the difference, definitely.”

When he is fully fit and ready to go, Long will be battling the likes of Miles Robinson, Chris Richards and Walker Zimmerman, among others, for an opportunity to be a part of the Starting XI.

“There’s a lot of guys right now. They’re playing really well,” he said. “Gregg is very fortunate to have the group that he has in terms of central defenders. There’s five or six guys now that are all putting up a good case. So it’s just how do I show my best self and give my best self to the team in whatever way that the team needs me and whatever Gregg asks me. So that’s all I can really do.”

No doubt it is much better than being on the sidelines enduring an eight-month rehab.